“Western” is a low-key road movie in which two French-speaking foreigners cover a brief stretch of Brittany, forge an unlikely friendship and earn viewer affection. Pic’s leisurely, delicately observed pace has been Manuel Poirier’s hallmark in the four films he’s made in five years, starting with his feature debut, “Antonio’s Girlfriend” (1992). Gallic reception on the heels of helmer’s almost universally praised “Marion” earlier this year is sure to be warm. Offshore auds will be divided between viewers who think pic is a consistently charming breath of fresh air and those who find it an occasionally humorous but needlessly long haul. Although the characters manage to travel only seven miles, “Western” should see more of the world as a fest guest.
Transplanted Catalonian Paco (Sergi Lopez) is a traveling rep for a shoe manufacturer. When he stops to pick up diminutive male hitchhiker Nino (Sacha Bourdo), a Russian who came to France two years earlier for a marriage that fell through, Paco soon finds himself stranded on the side of the road with his car, shoe samples and luggage stolen out from under him.
Local gift shop owner Marinette (Elisabeth Vitali) gives the stocky, virile Spaniard a lift. Their mutual attraction manifests itself quickly, and Paco, who was fired over the stolen-car episode, hangs around. When he happens to spot Nino in the same town, he beats up the scrawny Russian, who lands in the hospital. Oddly enough, this marks the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
When Marinette suggests a three-week separation so she and Paco can judge the depth of their feelings for each other, the hunky Spaniard and the puny Russian hit the road together. Bulk of pic involves the ease with which Paco attracts women, contrasted with Nino’s utter lack of success with girls. There’s a clever twist when Nino finally does get a pretty girl into bed, which paves the way for an even odder finale.
Bourdo, who recalls the young Bob Dylan, only bonier, and Poirier regular Lopez excel as the mismatched pair. The supporting characters whose paths they cross are almost unfailingly courteous and solicitous, creating a pleasant bubble in which foreigners get a fair shake without undue comment or prejudice. Pic’s light tone embodies an optimistic humanist vision in which life may be hard but problems have solutions and it never hurts to ask for what you really want.
Whereas Poirier’s previous work has been set in Normandy, “Western” makes appealing use of the cottages, docks and seagulls of Brittany, its rugged wind-whipped shoreline and stark or occasionally pastoral landscapes. Widescreen lensing pinpoints a sense of place, juggling intimate exchanges and wide open spaces with ease. Bernardo Sandoval’s syncopated score bursts forth with moody or buoyant flamenco guitar riffs, to excellent effect.
Viewers who don’t share the director’s obvious affection for his often funny characters will find the pic too long and too diffuse, but its cumulative rewards are ample.